Black Panther is a film for us

T'Challa/Black Panther meet face-to-face for the first time. (Photo courtesy: Marvel/Disney)

I can’t remember the last time I watched a movie three times on its opening week, but then again, there’s never been a movie quite like the culture’s Black Panther. And I say, “the culture’s” because although it’s technically owned by Disney and has the purpose of furthering the Marvel Cinematic Universe larger storyline to the Avengers: Infinity War battle, this movie was made by us and for us.

Black Panther was directed by Ryan Coogler, a 31-year-old Black man from Oakland who graduated from Sacramento State and USC. Aside from two semi-main characters, the entire cast is Black. The costume designer who created this afrofuturistic world of Wakanda is Black. And the soundtrack, which features Oak Park native Mozzy, is also entirely Black.

It seems as though Hollywood is finally paying attention.

Let me expound. Here’s the list of comic book movies since Hollywood realized “oh, shit, we can make boatloads of money making, like, five superhero movies a year” in 2008:

  • Iron Man
  • The Dark Knight
  • The Incredible Hulk
  • Punisher: War Zone
  • X-Men Origins: Wolverine
  • Watchmen
  • Iron Man 2
  • The Losers
  • Jonah Hex
  • Thor
  • X-Men: First Class
  • Captain America: The First Avenger
  • Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
  • Green Lantern
  • The Dark Knight Rises
  • The Avengers
  • The Amazing Spider-Man
  • Iron Man 3
  • The Wolverine
  • Thor: The Dark World
  • Man of Steel
  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  • The Amazing Spider-Man 2
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Avengers: Age of Ultron
  • Ant-Man
  • Fantastic Four
  • Deadpool
  • Captain America: Civil War
  • X-Men: Apocalypse
  • Doctor Strange
  • Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice
  • Suicide Squad
  • Logan
  • Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
  • Spider-Man: Homecoming
  • Thor: Ragnarok
  • Wonder Woman
  • Justice League
  • Black Panther

That’s 41 movies between the DC and Marvel cinematic universes since 2008. FORTY-ONE. How many have a woman in the leading role? One. And how many have someone Black in the lead role? Again, one.

Yet, believe it or not, those two movies—Wonder Woman and Black Panther—have both broken box office records, proving, yet again, that people want more representation. And these movies both showed out when taking in consideration the impact of showing kids heroes who look like them.

The title character in Black Panther isn’t even the third best character in the movie and is difficult to admire from an ideological perspective. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, (1) shame on you, and (2) the rest of this contains nothing but spoilers.

You’ve been warned.

Seriously, this is your last chance to stop scrolling. After this sentence will be the movie’s trailer, but after that is NOTHING BUT SPOILERS.



“Just throw my body in the ocean like all my ancestors jumping from the ships, because they knew that death was better than bondage.”

Holy. Shit. That quote. Let’s take a moment to reflect. This was Erik Killmonger’s (Michael B. Jordan) last line before pulling the dagger out of his chest to die. (I warned you there’d be spoilers.) The gripping last words were delivered just after Killmonger’s final battle with T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), when the movie’s title hero offered to keep Killmonger alive. Killmonger, thinking back at how his ancestors were locked up and sold off as slaves upon arrival to America, decided it was better to die than be imprisoned.

If you’re reading this, I’m sure you have a cursory understanding of history, or at least enough to know that Killmonger is referencing the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of enslaved Africans who chose to take their own lives during the middle passage after being snatched from their home country rather than being slaves in a foreign land to some European colonizers. And I’m sure you have enough knowledge to know how those Africans who did make it to America were treated before, during and after the racist institution known as chattel slavery.

If you’re not familiar, let me catch you up.

Africans were sold off by the thousands to white settlers in America who, after taking land from the Natives, decided it was best to profit off of the bodies of Black people who would then go on to literally build what would ultimately become the United States of America. After centuries of slavery, and despite the Emancipation Proclamation having technically freed all Africans in America, white supremacy continued to run rampant across the country. Racist laws were enacted to oppress Black people for years to come. Segregation furthered white America’s fuel to try and prove they were dominant (they aren’t). After segregation legally ended in 1964, then came the government operations of peddling drugs into Black communities, dismantling Black activist organizations who fought for Black liberation, an increase in funding to put more Black bodies in prisons and a decrease in funding to public education in Black neighborhoods.

Now, let’s look at those words again: “Just throw my body in the ocean like all my ancestors jumping from the ships, because they knew that death was better than bondage.”

The film, and even Killmonger’s life, has led to this very moment.

Coogler has somehow made it easy for the intended audience to relate more to the movie’s central villain, something that hasn’t been done since Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. It’s hard not to feel captivated by the villain’s story because it feels far too familiar and speaks indirectly to the bastardization of Black Americans who have struggled to connect to any African culture since their ancestors were taken from their motherland and enslaved.

Killmonger is Marvel’s best villain by a country mile, and it’s not just because he did villainous things. In a cinematic universe that often uses its main antagonist as a crutch to further the protagonist’s storyline, Killmonger stands out by being arguably the most developed character in the movie.

Erik Killmonger is escorted into the council chambers where he meets T’Challa for the first time. (Photo courtesy: Marvel/Disney)

The film starts in Oakland (word to director Ryan Coogler, who is from there), where we see a young King T’Chaka—T’Challa’s father—greeting his younger brother, N’Jobu, a Wakandan spy planted in America. As the movie tells it, N’Jobu has a son, Killmonger, with an American woman. While in Oakland, N’Jobu sees how Black people are treated in America, how their revolutionaries are gunned down, how their communities are overly policed and bodies are overly incarcerated.

We later discover that N’Jobu ultimately betrays his home country (so says T’Chaka) by helping Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) steal loads of Vibranium in order to help arm Black Americans with tools that will presumably help liberate them. This plays a big role in the entire Black Panther universe as it sets up Klaue’s role as one of Wakanda’s main villains over the years, and also the importance of Vibranium as the strongest metal in the universe.

Later it’s revealed that T’Chaka killed N’Jobu in that small Oakland apartment, leaving a young Killmonger to grow up without a father, planting the seed for his revenge on Wakanda. Killmonger would go on to study at MIT, train in hand-to-hand combat, and become a black ops agent for the United States government. As he told T’Challa before their ritual battle for the throne, “I trained, I lied, I killed, just to get here. I killed in America, Afghanistan, Iraq. I took life from my own brothers and sisters right here on this continent. And all this death, just so I could kill you.”

Treason to Wakanda aside, N’Jobu’s reasoning for stealing the Vibranium was spot on. Before getting stabbed in the chest by his brother’s Vibranium-infused Black Panther claws, N’Jobu explains that Black people around the world are oppressed and can’t defend themselves, despite Wakanda having the technology and weapons to help liberate all Black people. Killmonger adopts these revolutionary ideas from his father, and ultimately uses them as the reason for trying to take the Wakandan throne.

If it isn’t clear by now, I have never in life related more to a movie’s central villain. Well, at least until his idea of Black liberation warped into imperialism. But even then, it’s difficult to blame him.

Enter, Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who wants the same thing as Killmonger, but doesn’t have the imperialistic tendencies and doesn’t want to be ruler of Wakanda. Nakia is an altruistic Wakandan spy who lives for helping others in need, and she won’t let T’Challa, the love of her life, get in the way of that.

You’re first introduced to Nakia when T’Challa and Okoye (more on her later) fly to Nigeria to grab her from a kidnapping situation that she didn’t need saving from because T’Challa wanted her to be there when he was crowned king. If the movie spent more time building her character, there’d be hashtags on social media saying #NakiaWasRight instead of #KillmongerWasRight.

(L to R) Nakia, T’Challa and Okoye over look a South Korean casino while waiting for Ulysses Klaue to show up. (Photo courtesy: Marvel/Disney)

Between Nakia and Killmonger, T’Challa seems to fall to the wayside, despite being the lead character. Sure, the movie takes place during T’Challa’s tumultuous first few days as King of Wakanda, but he somehow feels more like one of the tires on the vehicle that is Killmonger’s life story. Even when he’s on screen, it’s usually someone else who steals the spotlight. That’s not an indictment on Boseman as actor, but it ultimately leads to superficial character development. And maybe that’s for the best, given his future roles in the upcoming Avengers: Infinity Wars and what I’d assume will be multiple sequels to Black Panther.

Anyway, I said earlier that he’s not even the third best character for a reason. Similar to Killmonger, I’ve also never wanted to be a part of the Dora Milaje until now. The Dora Milaje is an army of Wakandan female warriors who protect the king and the country and are also legitimately the most badass part of Black Panther. The warriors are led by General Okoye (Danai Gurira), who in my humble opinion should actually be Black Panther.

Look, all I’m saying is, if I was a woman, Okoye would be #GOALS. Take this scene, for example. At the end of the epic battle between Killmonger’s army and the Dora Milaje, Okoye and her husband, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) square off in what could’ve been an epic fight scene that clearly would’ve left W’Kabi near death and begging for his life.

“Would you kill me, my love,” W’Kabi asks Okoye as she stares him down with the coldest glare.

“For Wakanda?” Okoye says before lifting her spear to W’Kabi’s face. “No question.”

W’Kabi lowered his blade, Okoye became ruler of the entire world and the audience screamed “Yaaaassssssss, Queen!” at the top of their lungs. OK, the last two things obviously didn’t happen, but the scene was still the jaw dropping, “Oh shit” moment that nobody knew they wanted.

General Okoye is the leader of the Dora Milaje, an all-woman warrior unit that protects the king. Marvel/Disney

In a movie that screams for representation, Okoye and the rest of the Dora Milaje are to little Black girls what T’Challa is to little Black boys: a hero who will take no shit from man, woman or beast. And it’s not just the Dora Milaje. Black Panther did an unbelievable job showing off the abilities of the women without making them feel like side pieces to a movie about two men battling for Wakanda’s throne.

One of those women is Princess Shuri (Letitia White), T’Challa’s 16-year-old sister who is the brilliant and funny scientist behind the world’s most technologically advanced nation. Shuri manages to be the smartest person in the world and by far the funniest character in the movie. With her “WHAT ARE THOSE!?” moment and calling CIA Agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman) a colonizer, she brought unexpected, but much-needed, levity to Black Panther. And unlike Marvel’s previous release Thor: Ragnarok, Coogler & Co. did not undercut the seriousness of the film’s central plot with excess comedic relief.

Putting characters aside, save for some of the CGI and edits during fight scenes, the movie exceeded expectations and sets itself up for several sequels. Who will return is obviously unknown at this point, but considering Killmonger was resurrected several times in the comic books, it doesn’t seem far fetched that the same cast could come back for Black Panther 2.

Except for Klaue. He’s definitely dead.


Kris Hooks on Twitter
Kris Hooks
Kris Hooks is a Sacramento-based writer and photographer.